On February 21, LA’s The Industry and wild Up present the 2015 edition of First Take at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts. Excerpts from six new operas will be performed throughout the afternoon, which starts at 1 pm and runs until 4:30. The event is free. Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll be featuring an interview with one of the composers every day at noon this week, and an interview with The Industry’s artistic director, Yuval Sharon, on Friday. Today, we begin with Anne LeBaron.
Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.
LSD: The Opera is a multidisciplinary interrogation of the powerful cultural, political, and spiritual ramifications set into motion by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann’s 1943 discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide. Unveiling obscure and extraordinary LSD-related friendships, networks, and operations that would contribute to an agitated period in American history, the opera unfolds in a panorama of dramatic events, encompassing scientific discoveries, murders, CIA classified experiments, festivities, and extraordinary meetings of minds. Characters include Albert Hofmann, Sid Gottlieb, George Hunter White, Aldous and Laura Huxley, Timothy Leary, Richard Albert (aka Ram Dass), Phil and Katherine Graham, Mary Pinchot Meyer, Cord Meyer, and Allen Dulles. A chorus (performed by instrumentalists from the Partch Ensemble) depicts groups of prisoners, divinity students, drug addicts, reporters, CIA trainees, and the Georgetown Ladies.
Once LSD was unleashed from Sandoz Laboratories, it became a much sought-after experimental drug that held promise as a weapon of mind control, coveted by the CIA and other intelligence agencies in the U.S. Simultaneously, psychiatrists were discovering how powerfully curative it could be in therapeutic settings when all else had failed. Yet LSD remains vilified as a negative force behind the social and political upheavals of the 1960’s. This opera seeks to present LSD from its origins, to its potential as a valuable tool for use in medical and carefully controlled settings. My wish is for LSD: The Opera to premiere in 2017-2018, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of its discovery.
The three scenes performed for First Take commence with the first acid trip ever experienced, now celebrated annually as Bicycle Day. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who first synthesized LSD on April 19 in 1943, intuitively returns to his abandoned research with LSD-25 when he ‘hears’ LSD (a soprano trio: Lysergic, Saüre, and Diethylamide) calling his name. He ingests a tiny amount in his laboratory. Riding his bicycle home, accompanied by LSD, he hallucinates during the journey, crash-landing at his house. Desperate for an antidote, he calls out for milk from his neighbor, Mrs. R., who arrives (played by Lysergic, Saüre, and Diethylamide, bearing two bottles of milk. Albert hallucinates her visage as that of an “evil, insidious witch.” She commands him, “Drink!” (In the full version of the opera, Hoffman’s bicycle will serve as a recurring metaphor of the centrality of LSD to the large cast of characters in the opera.) The second scene, MK-ULTRA, opens with the despicable George Hunter White (hired by the CIA to direct Operation Midnight Climax), who in turn introduces the notorious Sidney Gottlieb, head of the CIA’s secret mind-control project MK-ULTRA. (Earlier in this scene, which we don’t represent in this performance, they have both taken LSD.) In a conference room with a flip board, Sid enthusiastically unveils the new LSD-fueled MK-ULTRA project to a group of CIA trainees, fervently trumpeting its patriotic value. In the third scene, Huxley’s Last Trip, Aldous Huxley, on his deathbed, asks his wife Laura to inject him with a dose of LSD to ease his suffering. She goes to retrieve the LSD, in an adjacent room, and is surprised that visiting friends are intently gathered around a television set while her husband is dying. Then, shocked to discover that they are watching the breaking news report out of Dallas, just after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, she decries the madness of it all. Returning to Aldous, she gives him the LSD injection and sings of the Clear Light, ushering him into his final trip.
What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?
I’ve always loved the medium of voice, and so naturally gravitated to opera. I’ve written several works for mixed chorus as well as male chorus and women’s chorus, along with settings of poetry, sometimes with unusual instrumentation such as that for Breathtails. This is a recent composition, a collaboration with the poet Charles Bernstein. The piece is scored for baritone voice, shakuhachi, and string quartet, and has been performed in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I wrote an essay for Current Musicology about our process: http://academiccommons.columbia.edu/catalog/ac:176447
LSD: The Opera follows my sixth opera, Crescent City. Earlier operas I’ve written include Sucktion; Pope Joan; Wet; Croak: The Last Frog; and The E. & O. Line.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygwSDJSrBdw]
Does/did your composition process change at all when writing for this medium?
My process changes for every piece I compose; in other words, the conception, scope, and context of each piece determines the process. However, writing for voices in an operatic medium provides an extremely rich palette of colors to draw from.
What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?
SongFest, the premiere art song festival in the U.S., held each summer at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, has offered a commission supported by the Sorel Foundation. Very excited about fulfilling this commission! I’m still deciding on the text to set for two singers and piano. The premiere is scheduled for June 21, 2015.
Check back tomorrow to hear from Jason Thorpe Buchanan about his opera Hunger. Full details for First Take are available at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php. More about Anne is up at annelebaron.com.